Forty Years of Public Economics : A Personal Perspective
This paper presents a personal perspective on the field of public economics, as I have seen it evolve over the past forty years. Starting in the early fifties, microeconomic theory invaded the age-old field of public finance. A central core of this work consists in deriving general qualitative formulae, within the general equilibrium model extended to encompass a public sector, public goods and taxation. That central development is flanked on one side by implementable solutions to practical problems (I refer in particular to public utility pricing, road pricing and auction design) , on the other side by the development of a rich abstract framework (I refer to equilibrium with increasing returns, state-contingent contracts, priority service contracts, ... ). The two flanks should come together, as they did in the early fifties when the theoretical developments grew out of practical applications. Yet, few economists succeed in creatively linking theory to real problems, and our professional organisation fails to promote adequately such contributions and their authors. Next to this emphasis on the interplay of theory and applications, I discuss briefly the success of public economics, its fragmentation into subfields and its relation to macroeconomics. The writing of this paper was prompted by my participation in editing a volume of selected papers by William Vickrey, on his 80th birthday. Frequent references are made to his work, which is exemplary of the perspective presented here.
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